Subtext Messages: Hidden Agendas And Why They Matter
Posted on Friday January 15, 2010, 16:37 by Dan Jolin in Empire States
First of all, just to make one thing clear, this blog isn’t about defending my one-star review of Taken, nor is it an excuse to snipe back at those who vehemently disagree with me on our forum. Of course, I’m aware that I’m at one end of the spectrum on this one (Hell, I’m still having arguments with people in the office over it, and my own editor gave Liam Neeson’s rancid rampage of revenge three stars on DVD, as is entirely his prerogative), but I still stand by the review. And I don’t intend on repeating all the same points here.
Indeed, I’m glad it’s led to such a debate (frankly, I could live without the personal insults, but, hey, I’ve always thought that if you can’t handle criticism, you shouldn’t be a critic), yet while following the thread one thing did strike me. It would seem that, by commenting on the film’s insidious xenophobia and misogyny I am, to quote poster Appelby “reading way too much” into something which Dr Lenera describes as “just supposed to be a load of guilty fun”. Irish C goes further: “There was [sic] no lessons to be learnt from this movie, no greater message and no one really was dumb enough to think anyone leaving the cinema would be duped into thinking visiting Paris is dangerous. It was a bloody action movie you fool.”
Well, aside from the fact that it is, in part, any critic’s job to identify subtext and discuss it (would you rather every review was a mere bland recommendation, a binary Go See/Don’t Go See?), I find it genuinely surprising that people should so strongly think an action film — a genre picture — should be inherently absent of subtext.
Why? Just because something is intended purely as an entertainment, it doesn’t mean it can’t have a hidden agenda, intended or otherwise. In fact, the more populist — or rather commerical — a film is, the more chance we have of finding an interesting (or indeed worrying) subtext. After all, if you want your movie to attract as wide an audience as possible, don’t you want its themes to chime as loudly as possible with that intended audience? And genre stories are often the sturdiest, speediest vessels for subtexual cargo. Just look at the Western: High Noon had its anti-McCarthyist subtext (admittedly not very sub), Little Big Man was staunchly anti-Vietnam — and it wasn’t just the left wing sneaking its messages through. The John Wayne-starring Chisum, for example, championed unregulated business.
Anyway, this isn’t supposed to be a film studies lecture, so I’ll get to the point: I just don’t see why some people are so outraged by me finding a subtext in a film like Taken. If you don’t agree with it, fair enough. But why respond as if it’s an offensive exercise for me to do so? Was it always this way? Maybe a more politically engaged audience might not have been so bothered. On its release in 1967, some critics attacked Disney’s The Jungle Book for promoting racial segregation. I’m not saying I agree with that (I love The Jungle Book), although I see the point, but it’s an intriguing comment given the context of the powerful Civil Rights movement during the late ’60s. That was an age of turmoil, but also great idealism, where there was a real sense of personal political involvement. These days, after millions marching failed to convince our leaders to keep us out of Iraq, with Obama wussing out at Copenhagen, and the UK having three political parties all gravitating toward the same centre, people can be forgiven for feeling there’s simply no point engaging our minds politically — least of all while we’re watching Liam Neeson righteously attach electrodes to Eurobaddies’ testicles.
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Posted on Friday January 15, 2010, 19:19
Well said, Mr Jolin! Reading the venomous responses to a flim critic's professional opinion on a movie is one of my all time pet hates. Movies shown in the multiplexes are of most interest when dicussing subtext in film, since these are the films that the vast majority of the public have easy access to. Simply saying "it's only an action movie" is to miss the point entirely.
And a difference of opinion should not give anyone the right to hurl abuse and bile at each other. Personally, I found Taken to be entertaining on a primitive level (the stylised violence, Liam Neeson's gruff performance), but completely disagree with the film's political messages!
So well done for standing up for your opinion.
Posted on Saturday January 16, 2010, 00:02
First off, Jolin, I'd just like to say that you're a damned fine journalist with handsome features, and I hope to God you didn't let any of that shit get to you for a second.
But yeah. As a budding journo and film-studies nerd / arse, I loved this blog. Personally, I loved Taken, but I can see your point. I find thinking about a film's subtext, if any, to be one of the more enjoyable things about films themselves. Sure, Taken was racist, xenophobic, misogynistic and crude, but it was also very fun. It was admittedly I laughed at more than with, but I was laughing nonetheless. And despite being a bleeding heart liberal (vote Tory and stub your toe, guys), I much prefer the right wing excess of Taken to, say, the hippieish preachery of Avatar (another review I disagreed with, though I'd give it 4 stars personally). Taken was pretty much Fox News the movie, and I LOVE Fox News. When it isn't pissing me off, anyway.
But yeah. Subtext rules (spotting orgasm metaphors in Disney flicks was around 10% of my film studies A level) and adds mind-flavour to a film. I really, really fucking hate it when people say I'm reading too much into a film. It makes me want to punch them.
Can I have a job now please?
Posted on Saturday January 16, 2010, 09:17
I rented Taken on blu ray yonks ago (I can't remember why I wanted it, but I remember going to Blockbuster with the intention of getting it). I hadn't heard any reviews for it or heard about any of the subtext agenda stuff, so I watched it in blissful ignorance with the volume turned right up and polished off a large bag of minstrels, cheering Mr Neeson on. Me and my friends I was watching it with all thoroughly enjoyed it and spent a hilarious 10 mins afterwards trying to picture how far our OWN fathers would get in the film if WE had been kidnapped :-)
This blog is the first I'd heard about the subtext and tbh it was so long ago I can't even properly relate it to the film now, but I always thought that most things had many different "levels" - nearly all "kids" films have jokes in them "aimed at adults" which the children just won't get, and I'm sure I've watched many films and not got lots of references and hidden subtexts (e.g. The Village), so what does it matter if a film has an agenda it's trying to push or appears to have " insidious xenophobia and misogyny" (both very big words I had to google!) as long as you enjoy it and are entertained? Isn't that the point of a film?
Posted on Sunday January 17, 2010, 13:16
I think you make completely valid points about subtext in films ad I do agree that part of a critics job is to see this and comment on it. The problem with this in relation to your Taken review is that you simply went too far. I really didn't like your review beceause it felt like a rant about the subtext rather than an appraisal of the film.
Posted on Monday January 18, 2010, 01:52
Posted on Monday January 18, 2010, 11:45
I guess I focused on the subtext because it was more worthy of comment than the predictable 'rampage of revenge' plotting and underwhelming action.
All the foreigner-bashing and male-empowerment nonsense aside, wouldn't the film have been so much more interesting if he'd [SPOILER WARNING!] found his daughter dead with a needle in her arm instead of her slutty friend, at the mid-point? Then he'd have had to make the far more interesting moral choice of carrying on to save the slutty friend, all the while grieving his daughter.
Just a thought...
Posted on Tuesday February 2, 2010, 18:02
This all really boils down to what one looks for in a review. Sometimes, if you're interested in going to the cinema but nothing catches your eye, or if you simply want to watch a film on TV, an, as you put it, binary review as to whether or not its worth watching more than suffices.
I think the issue is where the review is published. Empire is a magazine for more discerning or even fanatical film types, and rightly, the reviews should be more intricate than a mere thumbs up or down.
The problem with film reviews is that people often seek or expect objectivity to be applied to something which is inherently subjective. If a reviewer is subjective, then that reviewer will portray their thoughts and feelings on the film, it's as simple as that. The thing about objectivity is that a reviewer could critique a film for wider desimination, however, the subtle nuances and intricacies and indeed subtext to that movie may be lost in translation. That's the crux of the matter. Do you want to know if the film is good or not and a brief knowledge of the plot, or do you want what essentially a treatise on the film?
Admittedly, if I haven't really heard of a film before I see it, a simple binary review will do with scarce plot details. However, I tend to read reviews such as those in Empire and other good publications after I have seen the film, to take on board the thoughts of others on a film. Take Cosmo Landesman for example, the film reviewer for the Sunday Times. Clearly he is a man who despises film, and he gets it wrong most of the time. But he makes interesting points and that's why I read his reviews. If you don't want to read about subtext, pick up the Sun. Empire is a film magazine.
To attack a reviewer for having a different opinion to your own is juvenile, ignorant and close-minded. In fact, I'm actually surprised that Don felt the need to defend his viewpoint against people who are in all probability children.
Posted on Wednesday February 17, 2010, 20:08
Dan - I agree with one of the posters above. It's not that you discussed subtext, it's that's you got carried away and let it blind you to the purely primitive and kinetic pleasures the film provided in spades. The action clearly was not "underwhelming" for a large majority of the audience or it would not have made the commercial splash it did. You got a bug up your ass, which we all do from time to time, and you ranted (and rated) from a very personal place without the right amount of perspective.
That's completely your right, but in this case your overreaction was met with an equal and opposite overreaction.
Years ago, a reviewer for Variety named McCarthy (he's still their top critic) completely demolished the Jack Ryan film "Patriot Games" because it so offended him as an Irishman. He didn't talk about the direction, the writing, the camera work, the performances...he just ranted with total disgust at everything the movie represented to him. The movie was no classic, but his review was beyond the pale and embarrassingly transparent. He ended up having to apologize. It was not right for an industry paper that is mostly interested in the art and craft of filmmaking, not politics.
You did something similar. And for the record, I disagree with your assertions. This movie was not made by Americans, who you so easily write off as xenophobes, but Frenchmen. You try to get around this inconvenient fact by saying they are PLAYING to Americans and that's why they are pumping up the racism. I'm sorry, that is ridiculous. This movie was an international hit because it was meant to be an excuse for some serious ass-kicking. Period.
The rest is, in my opinion, in your overheated brain.
Posted on Monday April 9, 2012, 19:13
As per usual, i'm late to the party, but hey, theres a reason I found this blog, and Mr.Jolin, theres a reason you wrote the blog because of the general dismay at your review.
Now, subjectively, you can think what you like about a movie, that is your right to do so, but I feel your over analysis of 'subtext' was such, that it ended up being the main focus of your review to the detriment of everything else. You even described the action as a bit 'meh', could that possibly be the subtext you perceived that didn't let you enjoy the action or even see it?
I see a lot of subtext reviews as frankly, apologetics. If the bad guys were white Americans in America, would you have complained about subtext then? Because it seems to be that in recent years, filmmakers are having to be rather careful as to who the bad guys are.
If James Cameron was about to release True Lies for the first time, would he be forced to neuter the rather obvious subtext that all terrorists are Muslims?
The movie didn't state that all Albanians are traffickers and bad 'uns, just that some of them were. In fact a cursory and not too indepth analysis shows that its actually a problem in parts of France, and that some Albanians are actually involved, so far from being xenophobic and racist.... it would appear that Taken has a degree of truth about it, even if Neesons accent isn't a part of that!!
And thats the issue I had with your review, the subtext that you saw just dominated your review to the extent that you were no longer reviewing the movie, simply the intentions as you saw it of the filmmakers.